The Conservative government has doubled the budget for prison construction and maintenance as it prepares federal institutions for an influx of inmates resulting from its suite of new crime laws.
In an interview with The Globe and Mail, Public Safety Minister Peter Van Loan revealed the government is leaning toward renovating existing prisons and building new wings as Ottawa's short-term approach to managing the increase.
He said cabinet will take another two or three years before deciding whether there is a need to build large new regional prisons as recommended in a 2007 advisory report - but the government already has some land in mind.
The plots are currently being used by inmates for milking cows and gathering eggs to feed their fellow convicts. It is part of the prison-farm program the government is phasing out after more than 150 years.
Since coming to power in 2006, the Harper government has introduced several justice proposals that would increase the use of mandatory minimum sentences, end house arrests and eliminate a judge's ability to credit a prisoner with two days served for every one spent in pretrial custody in calculating sentences.
Mr. Van Loan said he has seen internal estimates that provide a projected range for prison population growth as a result of government legislation either passed or before Parliament. However, those numbers are a cabinet confidence and cannot be disclosed, he said.
"Each bill brings with it a different impact," Mr. Van Loan said. "But ultimately we anticipate some need for major investment."
Most of the approximately 33,000 offenders now incarcerated are the responsibility of the provinces or territories, either because they are awaiting trial or sentencing or serving sentences of less than two years.
Mr. Van Loan said new minimum sentences and an end to bonuses for time spent awaiting trial would see more people serving more than two years and, as a result, ending up in one of Canada's 58 federal institutions.
"The effect of that bill [ending the two-for-one credit]is essentially a massive transfer, financially and in terms of custodial obligations, from the provinces to the federal government," he said.
Mr. Van Loan, who is responsible for the Correctional Service of Canada, said that until cabinet decides on a long-term plan, the farm-program lands will be rented out to farmers.
"It wouldn't be prudent to dispose of the land if you may have potential plans in the future to build super regional prisons," he said. "We don't know how many we will do. But it just wouldn't make a lot of sense in protecting the taxpayer's interest to unload all that land and then decide three, four years hence that you've got to get it back."
A public campaign is under way to save the prison-farm program, which teaches inmates at six institutional farms the ins and outs of agriculture. Proponents, including current prison farmers who are speaking out in the media, say the program teaches universal skills like punctuality. They also say caring for animals instills a sense of compassion.
The government says the program's $4-million budget could be better spent elsewhere, given that less than 1 per cent of released inmates end up in agriculture. Mr. Van Loan said the public and inmates are better served by programs focused on more employable skills such as landscaping or furniture-making, adding that landing a job after prison is a key factor in avoiding a return to crime.
He denied any link between the program's end and the government's expansion plans.
The move to mandatory minimums is in response to the perception among some that Canada has a "revolving-door" justice system that goes easy on repeat offenders. The measures are supported by the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police, particularly in relation to anti-drug measures contained in a bill now before the Senate.
Frank Addario, president of the Criminal Lawyers' Association, says the American experience shows mandatory minimums don't work.
"The most law-and-order states in the United States have turned away from muscular sentencing and mandatory minimums on the basis that no reasonable state budget can manage the level of incarceration that those laws require," Mr. Addario said. The annual average cost of keeping a Canadian inmate incarcerated is $93,030.
The possibility of using the farm land for prisons was first confirmed by Mr. Van Loan in a written response tabled recently in the House of Commons replying to a question from Liberal MP Mark Holland. The minister's response also revealed the annual budget for "corrections infrastructure" has grown from $88.5-million in 2006-07 to $195.1-million this year. It is projected to peak at $211.6-million in fiscal year 2010-11.
Mr. Van Loan has embraced the recommendations of a controversial 2007 advisory report prepared for the federal government by Rob Sampson, a former minister of corrections in Ontario's Mike Harris government.
Among the report's wide-ranging recommendations was a call to create large new regional correctional facilities that would house high-, medium- and low-security prisoners in one location - though physically separated from each other.
The report said this would lead to administrative savings by sharing common services like food. While other recommendations from the 2007 report are already government policy, the government until now has been silent on the call for new prisons.
A report by prisoner-rights advocates Michael Jackson and Graham Stewart warned last month that some of the recommendations contain "draconian implications" for human rights, yet are being implemented with little public or parliamentary debate.
The Jackson-Stewart report acknowledged the need for upgrades to aging facilities, but said the call for regional complexes was "ill advised" and not well thought out.
Offenders serving a sentence of less than two years, as well as adults held in custody while awaiting trial or sentencing (known as remand), are the responsibility of provinces and territories. Ottawa is responsible for the detention of offenders serving two years or more.
- In remand: 12,888
- Serving sentences: 9,750
- Serving sentences: 13,304
- Canada: 117 people in custody for every 100,000 (including youth)
- United States: 762 in custody per 100,000 (not including youth)
Annual budget for prison infrastructure
- 2005-06 $88.6-million
- 2007-08 $103.1-million
- 2008-09 $151-million
- 2009-10 $195.1-million
- 2010-11 $211.6-million
- 2011-12 $163.2-million
- 2012-13 $113.1-million
Farewell to the farms
After more than 150 years, Ottawa is shutting down the Prison Farm Program, which teaches inmates to take care of animals and provides products to the prison population. The government notes that of 25,000 offenders released over the last five years, less than 1 per cent found work in agriculture.
Sources: Responses tabled in the House; Statistics Canada